On Friday, August 12, Brendan Dassey’s conviction for the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach was overturned by the US District Court. The decision is the light at the end of a very dark tunnel Brendan and his family have been trapped in since 2005. It is also the culmination of over five years of hard work from Dassey’s lawyers at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth.
The successful federal motion was just the latest attempt to gain justice for Dassey, whose trial was exposed as a clear sham by the immensely popular Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer. Dassey’s appeal lawyers Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin had previously filed four other appeals, claiming Dassey’s original counsel Len Kachinsky didn’t just fail to provide an effective defense, he actively worked with the prosecutor to have Brendan found guilty. They also argued that Dassey’s confession — the only evidence presented during his trial that tied him to the murder of Halbach — was coerced by detectives taking advantage of the 16-year-old special ed student.
Anyone who has watched Making A Murderer can attest to these claims being true. Those who have gone further and read the online court transcripts and filings have found even more indisputable evidence that Dassey was railroaded into a sentence of life in prison with no eligibility for parole until 2048. But the Wisconsin court system saw nothing wrong with the way Dassey’s case was handled. After a flawed hearing presided over by the same judge that found him guilty in his original trial, Dassey’s post-conviction motion was denied in 2010. A motion for retrial was also denied, and in 2013 the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to review his case.
That left Dassey almost out of options, but in October 2014 his lawyers filed a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus claiming Dassey’s constitutional rights had been violated. Specifically, it argued that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel, and that his coerced confession was a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment. Now, nearly two years after the filing, Magistrate Judge William E. Duffin has made a ruling in favor of Dassey. Barring an appeal or decision to retry, he should walk free from jail in the next 90 days.
In his conclusion, Judge Duffin rejected the claim of inadequate counsel but concluded that Dassey’s confession was involuntary, writing that “the state courts unreasonably found that the investigators never made Dassey any promises during the March 1, 2006 interrogation. The investigators repeatedly claimed to already know what happened on October 31 and assured Dassey that he had nothing to worry about. These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals’ decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.”
The positive outcome for Dassey is somewhat surprising given the extremely high benchmark required for federal habeas corpus cases — one that results in 99 percent of all such petitions failing. In order for habeas relief to be granted, “a state court’s decision must be not merely wrong but so wrong that no reasonable judge could have reached that decision.”
Judge Duffin notes this in his ruling, stating: “While the circumstances for relief may be rare, even extraordinary, it is the conclusion of the court that this case represents the sort of ‘extreme malfunction in the state criminal justice system’ that federal habeas corpus relief exists to correct.”